Kingfisher WoodWorks LLC,
Bokken, Jo & other traditional Japanese wooden weapons
While many cultures developed substitute weapons for developing martial skills, none have attained the degree of effectiveness, refinement and reserved austerity as the Japanese bokken, the wooden sword of the samurai. Unlike so many historical relics, not only did it attain a completely independent status as a weapon in its own right, it is still widely used by martial artists today. Similarly, the straight jo staff with its austere versatility, remains as relevent now as it did four hundred years ago. Since 1986, Kingfisher WoodWorks has produced these and other traditional wooden weapons including shoto, tanto, hanbo, yawara, suburito and also provides related accessories including sword stands and cases.
 
 
 
 
kenjutsu bokken
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Choosing a bokken
bokkenkanji.jpg
 
 
 

The history of the Japanese sword spans about a thousand years. Over that time, the essential features of Japanese blades are remarkably uniform but we see differences, mainly nuances, in their shape. Some are longer by a few inches, some shorter, some with more pronounced curvatures, some heavy and others light in weight. Many bokken reflect these differences but we also see wooden swords that are not direct imitations of live blades. In fact, Japanese wooden swords are not generally intended to mimic the shape, weight or feel of a live samurai sword but instead intended to develop specific skills and facilitate specific movements.

 
For example, The thin Yagyu bokken is lighter in weight than others and much lighter than a live blade. The medium Aikiken is somewhat lighter in weight but rather true in balance, curvature and proportion of a real sword. The heavy kashima bokken is similar in weight to a live blade but much different in shape, balance and proportion. The reason for these variations is that separate martial schools (ryu) emphasize different movements and these are better achieved with wooden swords of specific size and shape.
 
yagyu bokken cross section
Cross section of thin Yagyu bokken
aiki bokken cross section
Cross section of medium Aikiken
kashima bokken cross section
Cross section of thick Kashima bokken  
 
The Size and Proportion of Japanese Wooden Swords:
The classic size of the Japanese wooden sword is between 40 and 42" overall length with a 10 - 11" tsuka (hilt) with medium thickness, shape and balance characteristics - but there are variations. The history of samurai swords spans about 1000 years and changes came with evolving conditions.

bokken size

Bokken of significantly different size are used for specific purposes. The rather short wooden sword of the Katori ryu is specialized to that school and the extremely long tsuka of the Kenjutsu bokken also has its roots in a particular methodology. The size of specialized bokken are largely determined by the conventions of those schools and while there may be some variations related to individual users, the overall proportions of these weapons are not necessarily customized to any large degree or adapted specifically to fit a particular body size.

 

Point (kissaki) Designs:

Point design is also associated with specific bokken.
 
   
bokken with blunt point
 
bokken with chisel point
  bokken with sword point  
Blunt point - used with thicker bokken of the Iwama style of Aikido
Chisel point - used with the Aiki bokken and Katori bokken
Sword point - used with the Shinto, Kenjutsu and Yagyu bokken  
 
The three major point designs of Japanese Wooden Swords are shown above. All variations of classical wooden weapons are based upon these three major shapes. They have their origins in the wooden swords of the old schools (koryu) and are paired with specific weapons. For example, the blunt point is the simplest and dates to the oldest of the classic styles and is now used as well in the the more modern Iwama branch of Aikido. The chisel point is a good all around design with strong geometry. It falls stylistically between the simple truncated blunt point and the realistic sword style point. The sword style point is used in the shinto bokken, an excellent choice for Iaido practice and general Aikido use as well.
 
For more technical information on weights and axis dimensions of specific products see this link: Bokken Specifications
 
Role of the tsuba (hand guard):
Some traditional schools use tsuba and others don't. For example, tsuba are used with the Kashima Bokken but not with the Iwama bokken. In Kashima Ryu techniques, the fingers can be badly smashed if not protected by the hand guard. In the Iwama style of Aikido however, which emphasizes weapons practice as it relates to open handed techniques, the user trains to rely on correct movement and posturing rather than the tsuba for protection. The tsuba is also used for less obvious reasons. In certain situations the sheathed sword was partially drawn and the samurai used the tsuba itself as a non lethal pressure point weapon. Some of these esoteric techniques are still practiced today with wooden swords. It is important for the beginning student to consider the tsuba based on the correct use of the weapon, not the perceived esthetics of its effect on the sword. In general, it is best to use a tsuba when practicing in a dojo that uses them but not otherwise.

Bokken with tsuba

bokkenwithtsuba.jpg

 
close up of bokken, martial art sword with tsuba transition
Some bokken have a clear transition which acts as a stop for the tsuba and defines the end of the hilt and the beginning of the blade. These wooden swords may be used with or without tsuba. If the use of a guard is anticipated, it is recommended to order the bokken and tsuba together since guards are fitted to individual bokken.  
close up of bokken with smooth transition

Others have a smooth transition from tsuka (hilt) to blade and are not used with tsuba.

 
 
Wood Choices:

There are only a handful of wood choices suitable for Japanese wooden swords. Most others are too weak or too soft or too brittle. In fact, there are only two readily available materials - American Appalachian hickory (impact grade hickory) and Japanese white oak (Shiro kashi) that are recommended for routine practice. The rest (some are quite hard and beautiful) are nonetheless prone to brittleness and originate from poorly managed tropical sources. Kingfisher uses Appalachian hickory which has some distinct advantages over other wood choices. It is extremely tough and doesn't get brittle over time. If any warpage occurs due to humidity swings, it can be straightened quite easily. It has a beautiful grain pattern and tactile feel. With proper break in and maintenance, it will have a very long useful life. Most importantly, Kingfisher grades lumber individually so that the user can choose a weapon specific to his or her budget requirements and easily choose between quality levels and prices.

For more information on the strength of wood used in wooden weapons - see this link: Woods For Training Weapons and The Strength of Wood. Also, there is some interesting additional information on hickory in our hiking stick site.
 
Bokken Customizations:
Choosing a bokken can be confusing. Being aware of the fact that there are many different styles of bokken, there are a few important guidelines that will help the martial artist to choose a suitable wooden sword. It is better to find a standard wooden sword design that fits your needs rather than order a completely customized bokken. In the event that a standard wooden sword does not fit a particular need, it is easy in most cases to make small adjustments to a standard shape. First and foremost, the style of bokken is often determined by the conventions of a particular school or tradition and it's important to first ask a senior student or the chief instructor in your dojo about this and how it relates to your practice.
 
Choosing a Jo
Jo kanji
 
 
Jo Sizing Information
drawing of jo
 
 
 
A general rule for Jo length is floor to armpit, standing barefoot. Notice that the measurement is made with the arm in a normal relaxed position.
lengthofjo.jpg
     
 
As always in choosing a wooden weapon, the most important first step for a newcomer is to find out what is preferred in the their dojo. In choosing your jo, all situations are different but we would suggest that customizations in size be generally conservative eg, a taller practioner might order a jo up to 53 or 54" jo and a shorter person might simply stick to the orginal parameters of the shinto muso ryu rather than ordering a very short jo. Excessively long or custom made extra thick jo, unless expressly required by an instructor, will certainly not be welcomed in most weapons practice.
 
The Role of Diameter
 
diameterofjo.jpg Small differences in diameter affect the feeling of thickness and overall weight of these shapes. A 51” Jo, at 1” diameter, will feel noticeably fuller in the hand than one of 15/16" even though the increase in diameter is incremental.  
 
 
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