The Iaido Journal  Mar 2002EJMAS Tips Jar

Bokuto Jutsu: Straight, Curved, Fat, Thin, Why?

by Karl Friday, PhD.

While the Japanese sword is relatively fixed in shape, bokuto come in all sizes and shapes. Some straight, some curved, some fat, some thin. Why would this be? First, I wonder if any techniques by any Japanese sword system truly depend on the sori (curve) of the blade.  Japanese swords -- especially shinto, and virtually all bokuto -- are, after all, almost straight.  That is, the curve is fairly shallow, and the tip ends up in a line with the end of the hilt.  (If it didn't, the sword would be very hard to use for thrusting attacks.)  Kashima-Shinryu gospel, at any rate, teaches that the curve makes no difference to technique (except in facilitating cutting).  Hence we can practice with straight bokuto or straight shinai.

The oval cross section  of any bokuto -- and the nearly round cross section of any shinai -- have a much greater effect on technique than the sori could.  The thicker body of the shinai or bokuto is easier to see, masks minor imperfections in the angle of the blade when it's swung, and rather dramatically changes the feel of any technique that employs the side of the blade.

The bottom line is that bokuto (and shinai) are at best a rough approximation of a real sword, and every ryuha has its own design of bokuto, fashioned to fit with its own ideas about what features of a sword need or need not be duplicated in a training tool.  Vive la difference!

Different ryuha use different sorts of bokuto for reasons relating to historic preferences, most of which stem from specific aspects of the schools' training and fighting methods.  Some are straight, some are curved, some are heavy, some are light.  But they all serve a specific purpose for teaching and learning a specific style of swordsmanship.  It is awkward and difficult to do Niten Ichi-ryu kata with Kashima-Shinryu,  or Jikishinkage-ryu bokuto.  And it's dangerous (not to mention expensive!!) to practice Kashima-Shinryu or Maniwa Nenryu kata with Niten Ichi-ryu or kendo bokuto.

Arguing the merits of one type of bokuto or another, outside the context of the training practices of the ryuha that uses them, is as pointless and meaningless as arguing whether English is a "better" language than French. Which brings up another consideration:  it's quite likely that there are many techniques which were developed more for use in duels and matches using bokuto or shinai than for combat with live blades.

I think we tend too often to lose sight of when most of the kenjutsu techniques around today were developed and refined.  Most are the product of Tokugawa period swordsmen, when exhibition matches, competitions, training matches and not-necessarily-lethal challenges were far more common than real sword fights.  As such, preparation for matches with bokuto (or shinai) was as big or bigger a part of the context in which kenjutsu techniques were polished as shinken shobu.

It strikes me that a lot of Japanese swordwork makes more sense in this light.  That is, techniques ostensibly -- theoretically -- designed for the sword were in reality developed using imitation swords and seldom (perhaps never, in some cases) actually put into application when using real blades.  I know that a lot of Kashima-Shinryu techniques -- particularly the ones for use from the tsuba-zeri (locked tsuba) position -- seem more practical as bokuto-jutsu than as moves to use against an opponent with a three foot razor.

The situation for swordsmanship during the Tokugawa period was kind of like the situation you see today in Tae Kwon Do and similar arts:  A lot of the moves -- especially high kicks and jump-kicking combinations -- would theoretically work in a real fight, but they're really developed in a dojang, wearing a dobok, for use against other guys coming at you with lots of kicks and jumps.  And few people would actually try them in a street fight.

I'm not suggesting that Tokugawa swordsmen were consciously or overtly developing bokuto-jutsu or shinai-jutsu.  They clearly thought of all these techniques as applicable to the sword.  But the reality was that, for the most part, the problems they were trying to solve -- the challenges driving innovations -- stemmed largely from matches with imitation swords, not real ones.  And this would almost certainly have had to have had an impact on technique.

Karl Friday is Menkyo Kaiden of Kashima Shinryu, Professor of Japanese History, & Undergraduate Studies Coordinator, Dept. of History, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602

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TIJ Mar 2002