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A bokken (??, bok(u), “wood”, and ken, “sword”), is a wooden Japanese sword used for training, usually the size and shape of a katana, but sometimes shaped like other swords, such as the wakizashi and tanto. Bokken (??) is a term synonymous with bokuto in Japan, but is more widely used in the west. Tradionally, the character Ken (?) is used at the beginning of a word, for terms having to do with the sword, for example in Kendo (?? “way of the sword”) and Kenjutsu (?? “art of the sword”). In contrast, to (?) is used primarily as a suffix, for example, in shoto (??:?????, short sword) and daito (??:????). Thus, in Japan, the word bokuto (??, “wood sword”) is more commonly used.
Bokuto should not be confused with shinai, a sword made of bamboo that is used for competition in kendo.
A bokken is used as an inexpensive and relatively safe substitute for a real sword, and is used in training for several martial arts.
Bokken are also used in the AJKF Nihon kendo kata, a form of training to develop technically correct movements.
In 2003, the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) introduced a type of practice using bokken. Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon-waza Keiko-ho is a set of basic exercises using a bokuto. This form of practice, is intended primarily for kendoka up to ni-dan (2), but is very useful for all kendo students.
Suburito are bokken designed for use in suburi. Suburi, literally “bare swinging,” are solo cutting exercises. Suburito are thicker and heavier than normal bokken and users of suburito have to develop both strength and technique. Their weight makes them unsuitable for paired practice or kata.
Historically, bokken are as old as Japanese swords, and were used for the training of warriors. Miyamoto Musashi, a kenjutsu master, was renowned for fighting fully armed foes with only one or two bokken. In a famous legend, he defeated Sasaki Kojiro with a bokken he had carved from an oar while traveling on a boat to the predetermined island for the duel.
The following list is the basic styles of bokken made:
Bokken can be made in any style of weapon required such as nagamaki, no-dachi, yari, naginata, kama, etc. The examples above are the most widely-used.
The All Japan Kendo Federation specify the dimensions of bokken for use in kendo kata.
Additionally, various koryu (traditional Japanese martial arts) have their own distinct styles of bokken which can vary slightly in length, tip shape, or in whether or not a tsuba (hilt guard) is added.
The quality of the bokken depends on several factors. The type and quality of the wood and skill of the craftsman are all critical factors in the manufacture of a good quality bokken. Almost all mass produced bokken are made from porous, loose-grained southeast Asian wood. These bokken may be easily broken when used in even light to medium contact drills and are best left for non contact work, such as in kata. Furthermore, the wood is often so porous, that if the varnish is stripped off the inexpensive bokken, one can see the use of wood fillers to fill the holes.