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The Bokken

The use of the Bokken in swordsmanship was an addition to the art that did not come along until the Muromachi Period (1336-1600) when the emphasis on the sword shifted from the battlefield tactics to a more individualized dueling. This form of single combat was a specialty of the ryu, the organized systems of teaching martial arts, which sprung up during the period.

Previously, exponents of the crafts of fencing had little in the way of instruction available to them. Expertise was gained through experience; those who were slow learners rarely were around long enough to repeat their mistakes.

Under the auspices of the ryu, methods were broken down and analyzed, evaluated as to their effectiveness, and taught in an orderly, prescribed manner according to a set curriculum. Each of the many ryu had different ways of accomplishing this, but they all had one need in common. All of them had to have some means by which aspiring swordsman could practice the techniques of fencing with a modicum of safety. The answer to their problem was the Bokken. The Bokken offered several advantages over a live blade in training at the ryu dojo. It was a good way to preserve the edges of expensive steel swords. Frequently, Katana (long sword) were nicked and even broken in combat. Therefore, rather than risk flawing an expensive blade, the use of the Bokken permitted the novice fencer to make contact with an opponent's weapon in the training hall, without serious damage to the sword.

By the middle of the 16th Century, there were over 900 ryu in Japan devoted to Ken jutsu, the art of the sword, and the Bokken was the central training weapon of virtually all of them. It was only a matter of time before some enterprising swordsman discovered that the Bokken had not only an important place in training, but a more practical value as well, as a formidable weapon in its own right.

Historical tales of sword slingers and their art, called Kenshi Kodan, are full of examples of Master Kenshi who met opponents armed with live steel weapons, with nothing but a Bokken in their hands. Actually, for the master, the difference between the Bokken and the Shinken (live blade) was minimal. In fact, some fencers insisted that the wooden weapon was superior.

Perhaps the best-known encounter involving a wooden sword was that of Myamoto Musashi's, who met & defeated Sasaki Kojiro on a sandy islet in the middle of the Kanmon Straits, in Southern Japan.

Musashi could not claim to have trained in any classical styles of his day. Instead his approach to swordsmanship was to learn by doing, and considering the 70 some victories he is credited with during his lifetime, his approach must have been a good one.

Tashi A. Kilani

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