Posts Tagged ‘Bokken’

suburi bokken2Most Japanese kendojo have a suburi bokken hidden somewhere in a dark corner. These come in various shapes and sizes including oversized shinai, implements that look like overweight bokken or the massive hexagonal clubs used in some kenjutsu styles. What they have in common is that you see very few people using them.

The few times I have seen people working with heavy suburi bokken, it has been in unstructured sessions without the supervision of an instructor. Based on this limited evidence, I had the feeling that they were doing more harm than good. By this I mean that they had to make adjustments to their posture and cutting action to support the extra weight.

In trying to control a heavy bokken, the grip tends to tighten, making the angle of the wrists more acute and causing the biceps to take the strain. This in turn brings more shoulder strength into play and as a result the exponent may find himself leaning forward, which is at odds with the correct upright posture that we aim to develop.

Suburi bokken  have been used by for many years and by many great kendo masters past and present, obviously this  means that in the right hands they are an aid to developing good kendo. Where they cause problems, is when they are used incorrectly. In the hands of a kenshi who has good posture, cutting action and tenouchi, or under the supervision of a good instructor, they should help strengthen good technique.

The same good be said about katate, or singlehanded suburi , particularly if done for a high number of continuous repetitions. Without guidance a natural reaction is to adjust the position of arm and shoulder to take the strain. This will have a negative effect on cutting technique.

Whereas an adult male’s shinai should weigh around 520 gm, suburi bokken can be three times that weight or more.  An iaito or shinken is approximately double the weight of a shinai, ranging from 900 gm to 1.2 kg and Iaido practitioners are taught to do a good job of cutting correctly with these. Correct technique is the answer regardless of the weight of the weapon.

In kendo we need to keep an upright posture with our weight distributed evenly between our feet. Our tanden should be braced and our arms hands and shoulders relaxed as we make the swing and we should finish with sharp tenouchi at the point or just beyond the point of impact. If we can do this, then the heaviest weapon and the largest number of reps should help rather than damage our kendo.

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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 😉


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