If you're new to the Japanese sword related martial arts or wooden weapons work, and thinking about buying a practice sword (bokken), you'll soon see that there are many variations and, as there are so many options, soon be wondering, what kind of bokken? The best way to answer this question is to approach it systematically:
1) If your dojo specifies a design, then use that. It would be better not to assume that you'll be OK with a beautiful, deeply curved kenjutsu style bokken when your sensei teaches Iwama ryu.
2) If there is flexibility in your dojo and students are permitted to choose their own design, it would be better to start off with a versatile model with classic proportions rather than a specialized version. An all around design will serve in more situations when traveling, attending seminars and visiting foreign dojo:
A) Versatile designs: Aikiken, Shinto including the AJKF (All Japan Kendo Federation) bokken.
B) Somewhat specialized designs: Yagyu, Kenjutsu.
C) Highly specialized designs: Kashima, Katori, Iwama, Itto, Kurama, Jigen, Niten
Keep in mind that none of them will work in every situation and every style of practice because the systems and martial schools themselves determined the dimensions, shape and weight of the practice swords.
Finally, if you're buying a bokken as a gift and have no idea, consider a gift certificate!
Now, lets explore!
While practice swords for developing martial skills are used in many cultures, none have attained the degree of effectiveness, refinement and reserved austerity as the Japanese bokken, the wooden sword of the samurai. Unlike other historical relics, the bokken attained an independent status as a weapon in its own right. It's still widely used in Aikido, Kendo, Kenjutsu and Ko-ryu martial arts but in the face of low quality standards and a blurring of the traditional shapes, today's bokken are crude, amorphous, machine-made shapes with little relation to the original and often secretive designs. We were the first maker to unravel the nuances that distinguished weapons of the traditional schools and translate that into wood, the goal being crisp execution and clarity of form and balance.
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 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.
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 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.
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 aesthetics 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
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.
Others have a smooth transition from tsuka (hilt) to blade and are not used with tsuba.
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) which 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 (it's hard to believe that some vendors still promote endangered tropical wood selections and indeed, Shiro-kashi, Japanese White Oak is terribly over-harvested).
Kingfisher uses Appalachian hickory which is under-utilized and has 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 information.
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.