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Thread: Bokken over Shinken?

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    Default Bokken over Shinken?

    Hi everyone,

    I've been reading this forum for a little while, incredible amount of knowledge here, now posting for the first time. Here's something I've wondered about for a while. In various books, you see references to the bokken as a formidable weapon in its own right, and some swordsmen (besides Musashi) actually preferring the wooden weapon, e.g. Lowry, "Bokken" pg. 19 "Historical tales...are full of examples of master kenshi who met opponents armed with live, steel weapons with nothing but a bokken in their hands....In fact, some fencers insisted the wooden weapon was superior..."

    Are there really historical records of swordsmen actually preferring bokken? If so, did they walk around with daisho in their obi and bokken as well? Did their methods change? If not, then my question is, especially given the quality of the Japanese sword and the reverence for it in Japan, why do these stories come about? I've always found his idea interesting, hopefully someone can help me discover more about it historically.

    thanks,
    Jason

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    Hi Jason,

    I don't have the historical knowledge of some of the people on this forum, but I do have a theory that might answer part of your question.

    During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate began to strictly regulate dueling. At certain times in this period, a unsanctioned duel was a crime-- and the Tokugawa legal system was not kind to criminals. I suspect that, for this reason, there were times when two men met to settle differences and brought bokken with them instead of shinken. If used correctly, a blow from a bokken can do lethal damage, and with wooden swords the survivor could always claim that a tragic accident occured during a training match. Also, the bokken has a bit more built-in discretion: it's hard to incapacitate someone without doing permanent damage if you are using a sword, but with a bokken you can break an opponent's arm rather than cutting it off. If you really want to fight someone, but aren't sure that you want to kill him or have him kill you, arranging for a bokken duel might have some appeal.

    Just my .02-- I'll be interested to see the other responses that you get.
    David Sims

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    My opinion is, in all likelihood, worth exactly what you are paying for it.

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    I hadn't thought about it quite that way, David, but you make some very good points.

    Jason, welcome to the forum. It's certainly one of the best sources I know of for those of us who have a serious interest in sword arts (& a lot of other budo, as well). If you're an experienced martial artist already, you likely already know that it isn't the weapon that's dangerous: it's the person who's using it. {Yeah, and I know that guns don't kill people, either....}

    My wife & I have studied a sword art called Muso Jikiden Eishin-Ryu iaido for quite a few years (forgive me in advance if you're an expert iaidoka, Jason, but it's best not to make assumptions with newcomers), & I am fairly well aware of just how much damage a katana could do in a confrontation/fight/battle. But we also study another martial art called Shinto Muso-Ryu jodo which uses a simple wooden staff just over four feet long (the jo), which is intended be as close as possible to a long straight branch you might pick up while you're hiking. Can you guess which weapon I would choose in a serious one-on-one fight? (Big hint: it won't be the katana.)

    Now you would think that a nice sharp sword would be just the perfect weapon, right? But if you could watch Chambers-Sensei wield the jo against our practice bokken, I guarantee that you would change your mind in a hurry! To say the jo is deadly (in the right hands) is a huge understatement. Similarly, as David pointed out, the bokken is a perfectly capable weapon in its own right - again, in the right hands. Compared to the human body, a solid chunk of wood is a lot harder!
    Ken Goldstein
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    "A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it'll annoy enough people to be worth the effort."

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    Wow, so you would choose a jo over a katana! I didn't expect that =/. While I got nothing against the jo, a katana just seems more capable of dishing out damage. But of course, my experience with the jo is limited so I can't really say with certainty...
    -John Nguyen

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jason Ginsberg View Post
    ...given the quality of the Japanese sword and the reverence for it in Japan, why do these stories come about?...
    I suppose it's just something that you come to accept when training in sword arts that the bokken is also a lethal weapon. It is probably less likely to bend or break than a real sword. And the fact that you show up to a duel with only a wooden sword appears to have been something of a tactical advantage in that it was probably unsettling to an opponent. Still, to do that, your sword may have been only wood, but your balls would have had to have been steel...

    You're right to say that the sword was/is greatly revered in Japan, but the sword is also a powerful symbol, and a wooden sword is just as powerful a symbol as a metal one. If you go to Kashima or Katori shrines in Japan, you can buy bokken that are o-mamori (souvenirs/protective talismans). The resident deities are obviously not offended by the fact that they are represented by bokken and not forged katana!

    A bokken is not an imitation of a katana. It is equally a sword.

    To take this idea of the sword metaphor even further, you might like to read the "Taiaki" of Takuan Soho, where he describes a sword with wonderous powers that is a metaphor for enlightenment, IOW a sword that the warrior has completely internalised.

    All men are equipped with this sharp Sword Taia, and in each one it is perfectly complete. This means that the famous Sword Taia, which no blade under heaven can parry, is not imparted just to other men. Everyone, without exception, is equipped with it, it is inadequate for no one, and it is perfect entire.
    b

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    Jason

    Wouldn't be the first time somebody highly motivated and armed only with what is essentially a wooden club beat trained fighters armed with metal swords.
    One of of the worst defeats the Roman army ever suffered was an entire army getting more or less wiped out by a bunch of germans armed in large part with wooden clubs.

    So on its face, depending on the skill of the user--and the situation of course ...there is little reason to consider the bokken that much inferior to a metal blade---again depending on person and situation.

    That being said, its also possible that since the group were are looking at are really a group of highly skilled experts-----it might have been, in part, an expression of just how skilled they were--deafeating a challanger with bokken.......they and the challanger might know that bokken are nearly as deadly as a shinken....but would everybody????

    After all you noticed enough to ask the question...many 100's of years after the fact.....I'd say that were I a really good swordsmen, and I had an interest establishing a reputation...this would be a really good way to do.

    It would seriously cut down on the number of challangers as well-----lot of people migh think twice about dueling a guy that was so good they didn't even need a "real" sword to defeat you.

    Plus, always possible that people with such advanced skills might be good enough that they could defeat their lesser skilled oppts without killing them by using the bokken.
    The "they killed a guy with a stick" stories get told forever-----just breaking a guys hand might not make the headlines.
    Chris Thomas

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    I, for one, highly doubt there were all that many duels in the Edo period. Even Musashi's tally has to be taken with a grain of salt. He spent many years seeking employment with various lords, and a law-breaker would not have the best prospects. Even taking the Ganryu Island story as true, it's evidence that, for one fight at least, Musashi carved an extra-long bokken to use against a no-dachi, not that he habitually engaged in duels with bokken vs. shinken.

    Which brings me to my second doubt. I doubt that of the duels fought, that many were fought with shinken, let alone bokken vs. shinken. I think bokken, and various forms of fukuro-shinai were more likely to be used. For example, the meeting of Yagyu Munetoshi and Kamiizumi Hidetsuna is often related as Munetoshi holding a bokken and facing off against Hidetsuna's nephew Hikita Bungoro, who had a Shinkage Ryu style fukuro-shinai. Indeed, this is repeated in William Scott Wilson's translation of Heiho Kadensho. But according to the histories of the Yagyu family, Munetoshi actually faced Hidetsuna himself, and both were armed with fukuro-shinai.

    Ultimately, I think most of these stories about swordsmen defeating opponents with only a bokken are just that: stories. A bokken can certainly be a dangerous weapon, but a sword can do just about everything a bokken can do, and it also cuts. What better way to illustrate a swordsman's great skill than by showing him winning an unfair fight? You have stories of guys beating guys with bokken, with short swords, even empty-handed.

    Finally, while I have no doubt that Quentin Chambers-sensei could kick my butt regardless, if I had a choice in a serious one-on-one fight, I'd choose the katana over the jo every day of the week and twice on Tuesdays.
    Josh Reyer

    Swa sceal man don, žonne he ęt guše gengan ženceš longsumne lof, na ymb his lif cearaš. - The Beowulf Poet

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    Quote Originally Posted by Josh Reyer View Post
    ... if I had a choice in a serious one-on-one fight, I'd choose the katana over the jo every day of the week and twice on Tuesdays.
    And you have trained with a jo how much? And with a katana how much? I personally prefer the katana, too, for many reasons, but the jo is a very strong, versatile and practical weapon. One of Musashi's only defeats was with a jo, I would not underestimate it.

    Dave
    Dave Drawdy
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    I'm not so sure I'd pick bokken over shinken. Jo is a different kettle of fish. It's longer and stronger than a bokken, and allows you to grip all over the place for a lot more variety than just swinging it like a sword. I've only trained a little aiki-jo so I'm mostly talking out my butt here, but it seems like a pretty good weapon.
    Neil Gendzwill
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    Quote Originally Posted by socho View Post
    And you have trained with a jo how much? And with a katana how much? I personally prefer the katana, too, for many reasons, but the jo is a very strong, versatile and practical weapon. One of Musashi's only defeats was with a jo, I would not underestimate it.

    Dave
    Consider my preference for the katana not as thinking less of the jo, but as thinking that much of the katana.
    Josh Reyer

    Swa sceal man don, žonne he ęt guše gengan ženceš longsumne lof, na ymb his lif cearaš. - The Beowulf Poet

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nii View Post
    , a katana just seems more capable of dishing out damage.
    A katana do more damage, no doubt about that. Damage-wise, 72 cm of razorsharp steel beats the Jo any day and the sword requires but the lightest of touches to cause major damage all over the human body.
    Thats not to say the jo is harmless when it comes to dishing out damage though.
    Fredrik Hall
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josh Reyer View Post
    I, for one, highly doubt there were all that many duels in the Edo period. Even Musashi's tally has to be taken with a grain of salt. He spent many years seeking employment with various lords, and a law-breaker would not have the best prospects.
    Musashi's dueling history predates the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. Certainly in the later years of the shogunate things were pretty locked down, and someone who went around dueling without shogunate approval would probably have had a hard row to hoe in terms of finding a position, to say the least; but Musashi's reputation was built in very different times.
    Beth's Buki
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    Quote Originally Posted by BJohnson View Post
    Musashi's dueling history predates the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. Certainly in the later years of the shogunate things were pretty locked down, and someone who went around dueling without shogunate approval would probably have had a hard row to hoe in terms of finding a position, to say the least; but Musashi's reputation was built in very different times.
    Not really. It predates the Tokugawa bakufu (barely; he was in his teens when the Battle of Sekigahara occurred), but post-dates Hideyoshi's unification of Japan, and subsequent moves to impose strict control over the country. Musashi was younger than 10 years old when Hideyoshi disarmed the country and forebade social movement between the (then) classes.

    Which is not to say that he didn't fight duels. Only that "60 duels and never lost" needs a bit of salt to go down, and that while he certainly had some duels, it seems unlikely that they were all (or even mostly) to the death.
    Josh Reyer

    Swa sceal man don, žonne he ęt guše gengan ženceš longsumne lof, na ymb his lif cearaš. - The Beowulf Poet

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    According to the version of the Book of Five Rings by B. Fullerton, the battles of Musashi were not all to the death...

    QUOTE:
    I have been many years training in the Way of strategy, called Ni Ten Ichi Ryu, and now I think I will explain it in writing for the first time. It is now during the first ten days of the tenth month in the twentieth year of Kanei (1645). I have climbed mountain Iwato of Higo in Kyushu to pay homage to heaven, pray to Kwannon, and kneel before Buddha. I am a warrior of Harima province, Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Geshin, age sixty years.

    From youth my heart has been inclined toward the Way of strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei. When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist, Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests.

    After that I went from province to province duelling with strategists of various schools, and not once failed to win even though I had as many as sixty encounters. This was between the ages of thirteen and twenty-eight or twenty-nine.
    END QUOTE

    From Wiki:
    The Tokugawa shogunate ruled from Edo Castle from 1600 until 1868, when it was abolished during the Meiji Restoration.


    I don't think sixty duels in a "non-death" match is too much to believe. Most Judo people I know have had over 100 matches.

    Regards,

    A. De Luna
    Last edited by lucky1899; 28th March 2008 at 15:30.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lucky1899 View Post
    I don't think sixty duels in a "non-death" match is too much to believe. Most Judo people I know have had over 100 matches.
    Sixty or more "matches" I have absolutely no problem believing. It's the idea of 60 undefeated "duels" that I'm doubting. I suspect that if the original was actually written by Musashi, and not edited after his death by his students, then Musashi probably mixed his actual duels with his friendly matches, and passed over his losses. In the original, the word he uses here is not 決闘 kettou, nor 果し合い hatashi-ai, nor 斬り合い kiri-ai, the usual words for "duel", but rather 勝負 shoubu, which can very easily apply to non-lethal matches. It's made up of the character for "victory" 勝, and "defeat" 負, and the general connotation is that of "contest".

    I wonder if the popular image of Musashi hasn't in fact influenced how he's interpreted. Musashi himself could just be saying, "I've had 60-some matches (of varying seriousness)", but because the image of Musashi is of this scruffy vagabond beating on folks with a bokken, they just assume that 勝負 indicates something as serious as a "duel".
    Josh Reyer

    Swa sceal man don, žonne he ęt guše gengan ženceš longsumne lof, na ymb his lif cearaš. - The Beowulf Poet

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