A bokken (木剣, bok(u), "wood", and ken, "sword") (or a bokutō 木刀) is a Japanese wooden sword used for training in kenjutsu. It is usually the size and shape of a katana, but is sometimes shaped like other swords, such as the wakizashi and tantō. Some ornamental bokken are decorated with mother-of-pearl work and elaborate carvings. Sometimes it is spelled "boken" in English.
It is hard to determine precisely when the first bokken appeared due to secrecy in ancient martial arts training and loose record-keeping. While various mock weapons were surely used during the earlier periods of Japanese history, usage of a bokken in their modern form first emerged during the Muromachi Period (1336–1600) for the training of samurai warriors in the various ryūs (schools of martial arts and swordsmanship) of the era. If a malleable steel katana is repeatedly used, it can easily become nicked and the edge flawed, eventually leading to a broken expensive sword. Bokken are safer than fighting with real swords, and are considerably more durable; a wielder can make contact with other trainee's swords with little fear of damage.
While bokken are safer for sparring and practice than katanas, they are still lethal weapons in the hands of trained users. A famous legend to this effect exists involves Miyamoto Musashi, a ronin known to fight fully armed foes with only one or two bokkens. According to the story, he agreed to a duel with Sasaki Kojiro at the early morning on Ganryūjima island, a tiny sandbar between Kyushu and Honshu. Musashi overslept the morning of the duel, however, and hastily made his way to the duel late. He carved a crude bokken from an oar with his knife while traveling on a boat to the duel. At the duel, Sasaki was armed with his large nodachi, yet Musashi crushed Sasaki's skull with a single blow from his bokken, killing him. While many elements of the story are likely apocryphal, the potential danger of a bokken from the legend is real.
Before the Meiji era, bokken were very likely manufactured by woodworkers not specialized in bokken manufacture. At the beginning of the 20th century bokken manufacture started more formally, mainly in Miyakonojo (Kyushu region). The last four remaining bokken workshops of Japan are still located in Miyakonojo.
The "standard bokken", mostly used in Kendo, Iaido, and Aikido was created by master Aramaki in collaboration with the All Japan Kendo Federation in the 1950s and was the first standardized bokken ever created.
The bokken is used as an inexpensive and relatively safe substitute for a real sword in several martial arts such as aikido, kendo, iaido, kenjutsu, and jodo. Its simple wooden construction demands less care and maintenance than a katana. In addition, training with a bokken does not carry the same mortal risk associated with that of a sharp metal sword, both for the user and other practitioners nearby. While its use has several advantages over use of a live edged weapon, it can still be deadly, and any training with a bokken should be done with due care. Injuries occurring from bokken are very similar to those caused by clubs and similar battering weapons and include compound fractures, ruptured organs, and other such blunt force injuries. In some ways, a bokken can be more dangerous as the injuries caused are often unseen and inexperienced practitioners may underestimate the risk of harm. It is not a sparring weapon, but is intended to be used in kata and to acclimate the student to the feel of a real sword. For sparring, a bamboo shinai is typically used instead for obvious safety reasons.
In 2003, the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) introduced a set of basic exercises using a bokuto called Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon-waza Keiko-ho. This form of practice is intended primarily for kendo practitioners up to Nidan ranking, but can be beneficial 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 must therefore develop both strength and technique. Their weight makes them unsuitable for paired practice and solo forms. Miyamoto Musashi's bokken made of an oar in his legendary duel with Sasaki Kojiro was presumably a suburi-sized bokken.
- daitō or tachi (katana-sized), long sword
- shoto or kodachi or wakizashi bo, short sword, (wakizashi-sized)
- tantō bo (tantō-sized)
- suburito can be made in daitō and shoto sizes
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.
- Tachi: Total length, approx. 102 cm; tsuka (handle) approx. 24 cm.
- Kodachi: Total length, approx. 55 cm; tsuka (handle) approx. 14 cm.
Bokken are traditionally composed of red oak or white oak, with white oak varieties being slightly more expensive and prestigious. Other common tree varieties used included ebony, biwa, and sunuke in Japan, and hickory, persimmon, ironwood, and walnut for trees native to the Americas. Biwa trees were used at least partially due to a folk superstition that wounds inflicted by biwa wood would never heal.
- Lowry, Dave (1986). Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword. Ohara Publications. p. 21–27. ISBN 978-0-89750-104-0.
- Ratti, Oscar; Westbrook, Adele (1991). Secrets of the Samurai; A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan (1st pbk. ed.). Rutland, Vt.: C.E. Tuttle Co. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-8048-1684-7.
- Wilson, William Scott (2004). The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi (1st ed.). Tokyo: Kodansha International. p. 19. ISBN 9784770029423.
- Seido - Budo Equipment & Practice in Japan (2017-10-05), [Interview] Aramaki Yasuo - Bokken Manufacture 3rd Generation Craftsman (Part 1/2), retrieved 2018-05-03
- "全日本剣道連盟オンライン・ショップ：剣道書籍". Zenkenren-shop.com. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
- "LAPD Equipment - Los Angeles Police Department". Lapdonline.org. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
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- A discussion of different woods with regard to bokken design, focusing particularly on durability
- Information about making or selecting a bokken
(Wayback Machine copy)