Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lesson 3: Bokken

Tonights lesson will include a bit of a book review of Dave Lowry's, "Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword." (Bokken refers to the wooden model of the Japanese sword, and not the more commonly known steel katana, though the bokken was used as training for use of the katana by samurai in Feudal Japan) This was one book included in an indulgence of Aikido books from Amazon the other night and was first to be received. At first when I was reading I found a few good ideas, and then many many problems. By the end, I was very dismissive about it, but couldn't blog about it until I had some questions answered by, or at least asked to, my Aikido sensei.

For a positive start to the book, I admire Mr. Lowry's devotion to maintaining the integrity to the style of suburi (the way of the bokken) he practices: Yagyu Shinkage. He writes:

"The only aid the individual can bring to the budo he follows is to set aside his personal predilections and desires, and attempt to pursue it with a pure heart, staying as closely as possible to the course set by those who've gone before him. Through study, through interaction with his seniors, teachers and masters, and of course, through incessant and selfless training, he must make the effort to comprehend the true meaning of the budo, and to follow it unswervingly."

Now, as a matter of fact, I highly disagree with his opinion that belittles creative exploration by the individual and raises the "ancient teachings" to an untouchable status. However, for writing a book on such a topic, this belief may be to the author's advantage. So in this case, I appreciate this attitude. I happen to like that Mr. Lowry also begins most of his points by highlighting what "the wrong way to practice is", which I think helps his writing. For example, before explaining his experience in authentic suburi, he explains that 99% of what untrained and unread people know about the Japanese sword stems from Japanese Samurai films from the 1960's, which is of course not true suburi. One more point of his I appreciate is his constant reminder that kendo is not just a bunch of physical techniques, but that it is a way of self-cultivation. By balancing these two factors, we find true personal growth.
Besides those three points, I have much to disagree with in "Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword." First of all, I'd say in the majority of the pictures of himself with the bokken, he appears to be off-balance or contorted! Two things that, as far as I know, are big no-nos in Japanese martial arts. I couldn't help but notice this when I first flipped through the book before reading, and within ten seconds of handing the book to my Aikido sensei, he said the same exact thing. My other discontents refer to specifics of positioning.

First of these is how he holds his bokken. Mr. Lowry says that a proper grip has one's pinky curled UNDERNEATH the end of the bokken. This, he says, is used for maximum mobility. A picture of this grip is shown below.

In our Aikido class however, our bottom hand fully grips the bokken, with the pinky wrapped around the base as shown below.

At first I was extremely surprised by the first option shown in Mr. Lowry's book, and when I tried it I thought it felt extremely weak. In fact, when I was taught to hold the bokken, it was the pinky you wrap around first, as it is the key factor for strength when gripping something as such or making a fist. When I asked my Aikido sensei, he said he had seen this before, but that we certainly practice it the second way in our Aikido class. I asked my Aikido sensei why we do it that way and ... all I can remember is it had to do with shiho nage ... !!! Bad student. I guess the detail was important enough to convince me at the time, but not substantial enough to make me remember exactly what it was? Crap, I'm sorry to the readers and myself.

Next, is a problem with his hips. When in a front stance after finishing shomen-uchi, (straight cut forward) he says to keep your hips directly and squarely foward. However, in our style of Aikido, we point our hips in a forty-five degree angle. By doing the second method in Aikido, you get a further reach, as well as ideal angle to slice. If two partners (or enemies) are standing face to face in Mr. Lowry's stance and do shomen-uchi, the swords would come down straight on each other and it would not be possible to easily deflect your opponent's sword or find the smallest angle to avoid your opponent's attack and strike his center. With the Aikido stance, you have the ability to find that smallest angle to strike your opponent. Also, the Aikido stance seems to me to be more stable and more mobile. It looks to me like the differences in a traditional front bow stance with your hips forward, and a natural fighting stance with your hips turned forty-five degrees. This problem here seems absolutley ridiculous to me.

Next is the angle of the sword when raised above your head. This however, is a question I still have a problem with after talking with my Aikido sensei. In Mr. Lowry's book, he says the proper position for the bokken when it is above your head is to be perfectly parallel with the ground (although in many of the pictures in his book it is draped behind his back). This is actually the way that I have believed to be correct for a while, but after talking with my Aikido sensei, he prefers to drape it down towards his back. Now, this focuses upon one of the lessons I learned tonight which is that there are quite a few seemingly contradictory theories in Aikido that I'm learning. My Aikido sensei that draping the sword towards your back relates to an open hand technique called ... (I don't know! I have not learned the name yet, but it is the technique where you are sitting, raise your hands to a shiho-nage like semblance, and then throw your opponent to one side). Anyway, he showed me that to do this properly, your hands follow the motion of the bokken in a manner that would drape it down your back, BUT, this contradicts what he has said about shiho-nage in that you need to always keep your hands in front of you, as if they go too high or far back, you lose strength. I have a problem with this explanation, and I don't like my Aikido sensei's way of draping the sword down his back. If anything, it makes more sense to me to follow the way of modern kendo, where the sword is tilted up at a forty-five degree angle. This way, it requires the least amount of time and muscles to effectively complete a cut. Anything slower would get you killed with a real sword is my take. While kendo is often criticized as focusing on quick hitting movements instead of a more realistic slice one would make with a real katana, I don't see how this way of holding the bokken in kendo compromises it's ability to slice. Anyone who practices the bokken is very welcome to make a comment on their particular way and it's reasoning. I don't feel comfortable with the answers I've found thus far.

These were the three logistical problems I was able to ask my Aikido sensei about: grip, hip direction, and bokken positioning. As for other problems I have with the book, he makes no reference to connecting the bokken to one's center. In our Aikido class, there is a huge emphasis on the connection between our center of balance and positioning with the bokken, but in Mr. Lowry's book there is no attention on this, and much of his seemingly bad posture is a result of him holding the ken to far back or to one side. This lack of connection makes for unbalanced and weak technique in my eyes. Instead of a constant balance and strength you attempt to achieve in Aikido or Chinese internal arts, you get on-and-off sporadic strength in bursts. Also, he does not mention once how the Japanese sword was used for cutting, which effects many techniques. The katana was not used to chop or hit, but to slice. Of course, this is a book about bokken and not katana, but this is one origin that needs attention I think, as it directly effects techniques of the bokken away from simple hitting or chopping.

For me tonight, the biggest moral of the story, is that Mr. Lowry's style of practicing the bokken in Yagyu Shinkage is different from that which I practice in Aikido. One is not necessarily "right" or "better", but used differently for different effects. Perhaps the biggest difference is Ueshiba Morihei's development of the bokken to work perfectly with all open-handed techniques in Aikido.

This is all I will say on this issue for tonight, as the epitomies and arguments could last for many more pages and books. But perhaps there is an issue to ponder here concerning two different views of the martial arts: First, should we follow our teachings unswervingly as Mr. Lowry states, or second, should we actively and creatively work to innovate techniques towards new refinement.


  1. we do the "pinkie off the end" method in jodo and in bokken work because it makes for a more solid strike, makes for easier transitions (especially in jodo), and it keeps your sword/stick the same length (your reach can change if you place your hand in random places on the handle.)

    But heck, I'm no authority. By all means, do what sensei tells you.

  2. For what it's worth, my Aikido instructor said the pinky finger is the most important in Japanese culture. It is on the heart meridian. It is the first one that an errant Yakusa criminal is forced to cut off. It begins the grip on the Bokken and Jo staff. If you hold it off the end of the jo it can get broken or dislocated when jammed by an opponent.
    I want to see what you think about Gako Homma's circle, square and triangle concepts for Aikido...

  3. Pat: I was awaiting your comment on this, and it's not what I wanted you to say!!! Ah well, I will continue to practice what my sensei preaches, but will not count out other methods, but experiment with them later on.

    DR: The first thing I thought about after I put down this book was getting Homma's. Will do.

  4. Please don't get confused between Aiki Kenjutsu,Aiki Jodo and real kenjutsu and Jodo schools. The Ken and Jo in Aikido is used as a training aid in Aikido and to be honest it can not be compared to real Ken and Jo schools. Some of the sword and jo work in Aikido is by all accounts horrible to look at to those that belong to traditional schools such as Yagyu. My main sword art is Mugai Ryu, I also do a little EishinRyu. In Mugai for example for a makko cut the sword should remain parallel to the floor and not drop behind your back. In Eishin Ryu we do the complete opposite.. the sword travels right down the back before a cut. Part of the philosophy of Mugai Ryu, was to get rid of any thing that could be deemed unnecessary(flashy) and to create a pure cutting art. As such, I prefer Mugai Ryu's simplicity(But not really simple) I would of course not say the above to an Aikido sensei that is my teacher...but it is the reality. Take all Ken and Jo teaching from Aikido as an aid to improve your Aikido...nothing else. If you are really interested in Ken and Jo as arts find the right schools. You seem to be in the right place to find it......if you have the time. Tenouchi is very important....concentrate on this.

  5. Sean: Thank you for the sobering comment. I was hoping to get some information like this about the ken because I honestly have such a small amount of knowledge in this. I will look out for any other schools for ken because I find it very interesting, but I wonder if I could divide time between the two. Thank you very much for your words.

  6. Your welcome. Try this your bottom picture, look at where you have placed your left hand, the ska (handle) is resting in the v between your thumb and index finger (Not the best, especially with a real sword). Now move the left hand around until the 3rd joint of the index finger wrests on top of the ska similar to where you have your right hand positioned....don't hold too tight. Now you should feel a big difference. The little fingers should also feel like they are in a nice position. You should also now be aware of the underneath of this 3rd joint resting on top of the ska. can have fun using this joint against uke when doing Aikido...takes some practice, but put in the correct place with a little pressure it can have a nice effect, however, don't let it distract you from the full technique or other elements of the technique. It may not be your time to go there yet...maybe you already are...I don't know.
    Also the above can help protect against wrist injuries, especially when using a properly weighted sword. It should also help to stop the sword in the correct manner....really we don't want to see any bounce down or up when the cut is completed. It should just stop in the correct place. For me, the correct place is at hara level, for others it may be below this and I have seen some aikido schools that just don't care. Hopefully yours does.

  7. Sean: Dude, I tried but don't understand exactly what you're saying about the third joint on top of the ska. Could you post a picture? Or know a reference with a picture? What style is it from?

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