If I had to give up any one single item of my kendo equipment, my bokken would probably be the first to go. Not because it is in any way less valuable than my bogu or shinai, but because it is used less often and replacements are easier to borrow. Unlike shinai, bokken seldom break, so they do not have the “at your own risk” stigma associated with borrowing shinai.
Please do not misunderstand me. Modern kendo evolved through the use of wooden swords. Bokken are essential to kendo practice, not only for kata but for the Bokken ni yoru kendo kihon waza keiko ho (method of practising kendo kihon with bokken), which was introduced by the AJKF in 2003. The idea behind this training format is that it is a way for kendoka up to 2nd dan to work on the key shikake and oji techniques without the pressures of winning and losing inherent to shinai kendo. As with kendo no kata we do not wear bogu or strike our opponent, at least not on purpose, so it is easier to move naturally without the restrictions of wearing armour.
Thinking about it, the Kihon keiko ho does exactly the same thing as Kendo no kata; teach technique through repetition and concentrated practise, the only differences are that in Kihon keiko ho the techniques are arguably less complicated and that the number of steps between the start and finish of each technique are fewer.
The clear advantage of training with bokken is that as the weapon simulates the shape of the katana, it is easy to understand correct cutting distance. The obvious disadvantage is that as the lengths of shinai and bokken differ, so does the distance at which we originate and finish techniques. In some cases beginners who have learned techniques exclusively with bokken will find it hard to transfer the technique effectively to subsequent shinai keiko. In my view the way around this is to combine bokken and shinai training; trying the technique first as a bokken drill and then repeating with a shinai whilst wearing armour.
This goes beyond the bokken keiko ho. For many years Sumi sensei has been using innovative drills based on Kendo no kata. With these, he short circuits the normal kata lead-in and focuses on the essence of the technique. So for instance, in Kendo no kata ippon me, he would instruct both fighters to stand in issoku-ito-maai and have uchidachi strike men from jodan. The strike would be repeated three times. For the first two attempts, as shidachi is in jodan, the cut would stop just above his left kote. On the third he would step back, pulling his hands out of the strike path and return the cut to uchidachi’s men.
Once this has been successfully concluded, men and kote are put on and we repeat the exercise using shinai, adjusting distance so that we hit with the shinai’s monouchi. When we go on to complete the technique by actually hitting the datotsu bu on an armoured opponent, the meaning becomes far more obvious.
Alternatively we can develop our own unique kata, as did these guys😉