This article provides a brief overview of the categories of Japanese swords and the ways they’re used in arts like kendo, kenjutsu, iaido and so on. That knowledge is important because before you can wield a weapon — whether it’s made of foam, hardwood, bamboo or steel — you need to understand what it was designed for.
The bokken, or bokutou, is the ultimate learning tool in the sword arts. Its lack of sharp edges and a point allows you to practice techniques and execute moves.
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate student or advanced practitioner, a bokken can teach you a great deal, including one- and two-handed gripping and cutting patterns. Many bokken have a tsuba, or hand guard, which makes partner practice even safer.
The shinai is a piece of bamboo about 40 to 45 inches long that’s been split into four strips. Held together by leather, the strips form a weapon that’s less rigid than wood because it has a built-in shock absorber.
Being lighter and less likely to injure, a shinai can be manipulated at full speed during sparring sessions. It’s used to teach students how to efficiently incorporate energy into their movements.
All those qualities make the shinai the weapon of choice in kendo. Competitors focus on developing their timing, rhythm, speed and breath control, which are essential to success in the sport and help build a solid foundation for other forms of sword practice. Endorsed by Japan’s Department of Education, the shinai makes frequent appearances in the nation’s middle and high schools.
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Shinken and iaito are the Japanese terms for steel and metal-alloy swords. They’re functional and practical, often chosen to develop finesse in techniques that aren’t practiced with the bokken or shinai.
Unlike the previously mentioned weapons, the shinken and iaito require a sheath, which enables the student to rehearse ceremonial sword movements. That also permits students to engage in iaido, the art of drawing the sword, executing a pattern of cuts and returning the blade to its sheath.
Because it isn’t sharp, the iaito is used solely for drawing practice, cutting through the air and resheathing. The shinken is sharp, which means it’s reserved for more advanced students.
The next variation is called, for lack of a better name, a “special sword.” It carries as much value to its owner as a prized firearm does to a gun collector. Such cherished possessions are often displayed in cases and may never be used in practice.
They’re periodically taken out, polished and admired, but that and the occasional “show and tell” are the extent of it. In other words, they’re seldom used.
The most recent development in the evolution of bladed weaponry is the padded sword. They’re perfect for beginners because they’re quite forgiving when contact is made. That characteristic makes them perfect for sword sparring because students are free to make contact without having to endure pain or injury.
Some traditionalists have reacted negatively to the popularity of padded-sword practice, but historians have noted that the same reaction greeted the shinai two centuries ago when it was introduced into the martial arts.
About the author:
Dana Abbott is a kenjutsu practitioner and Black Belt’s 2004 Weapons Instructor of the Year. For more information, visit the Samurai Sports website.
Black Belt Hall of Fame member Masayuki Shimabukuro, along with senior disciple Carl E. Long, are responsible for three modern-day classics in the Japanese sword arts: Samurai Swordsmanship (3-DVD set), Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship (3-DVD set) and Samurai Swordsmanship: The Batto, Kenjutsu and Tameshigiri of Eishin-Ryu (book).