The bokken, or wooden samurai sword, is a common accompaniment to kendo and kenjutsu training. Fashioned from a single cut of wood--traditionally shiro kashi, or Japanese white oak--the bokken allows for students of Japanese fencing to practice and execute sword katas and techniques with relative safety. Though typically replaced with a shinai, or bamboo sword, for full-contact sparring purposes, a bokken can both build strength and develop dexterity for practitioners wanting to fine-tune their sword techniques.
Cuts and Strikes
Due to its similarity with the curved-bladed katana, a sword designed for cutting and slashing techniques, the primary attacks used in bokken training involve cutting with the wooden “blade.” The primary cut utilized in the Itto-ryu sword school, as well as a number of other traditional Japanese dojos, involves a single downward cut delivered to your opponent. With both hands on the bokken’s handle--your secondary, or nondominant, hand gripping at the very bottom of the handle--raise your sword directly over your head in a straight line until your elbows are pointing straight upward. Quickly but carefully release the blade down in a straight cut, visualizing the bokken’s path symmetrically through your target’s middle in a vertical slash. Additional cuts include the side cuts, where you grip the handle with one hand and cut outward to the side; thrust attacks, where you jab the bokken’s point straight in front of you; and angle cuts, where your visualize your sword entering the neck of your opponent and cutting down to the armpit.
While bokkens can sometimes be more resilient in blocking strikes compared to steel blades, which are prone to notching and cracking, many of the blocks practiced in bokken training come from traditional katana blocks. The primary block in bokken training raises the arc of the blade so that it points upward directly above your head, deflecting any overhead cuts that may be intended for your upper torso or head. Side blocks interrupt cuts that may be aimed at the side of your body and can be maneuvered with both hands on the bokken handle with the blade held vertically before your body. Thrust attacks are among the most difficult to parry or deflect, as they are often quicker than other strikes and therefore harder to predict. Though more haphazard than side or overhead blocks, thrust blocks can include diverting the incoming sword with the blade of your bokken as your step to the side, or if there is sufficient distance between you and your opponent, “cutting” at the blade as if it were an attack, potentially causing your opponent to drop his bokken.
When testing your bokken abilities in live training, a number of more advanced strikes, blocks and stances occur naturally in combat. For instance, when fighting an opponent with a bo staff, polearm or other long-ranged weapon, the bokken can deflect the farthest end of your opponent’s weapon as you quickly maneuver into close-ranged combat. When training with two bokken, one in each hand, you will be able to deflect or “trap” your opponent’s weapon with one sword while the other moves in for a targeted strike. When facing an opponent who is wielding a jo staff, or short staff, you can trap the shaft of their weapon underneath your armpit within battle, effectively disarming them. The techniques of bokken fighting are as numerous and varied as traditional sword techniques and are limited only by your imagination.
Based in the Appalachian Mountains, Brian Connolly is a certified nutritionist and has been writing professionally since 2000. He is a licensed yoga and martial arts instructor whose work regularly appears in “Metabolism,” “Verve” and publications throughout the East Coast. Connolly holds advanced degrees from the University of North Carolina, Asheville and the University of Virginia.