Tonights lesson will include a bit of a book review of Dave Lowry’s, “Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword.” (Bokken refers to the wooden model of the Japanese sword, and not the more commonly known steel katana, though the bokken was used as training for use of the katana by samurai in Feudal Japan) This was one book included in an indulgence of Aikido books from Amazon the other night and was first to be received. At first when I was reading I found a few good ideas, and then many many problems. By the end, I was very dismissive about it, but couldn’t blog about it until I had some questions answered by, or at least asked to, my Aikido sensei.
In our Aikido class however, our bottom hand fully grips the bokken, with the pinky wrapped around the base as shown below.
At first I was extremely surprised by the first option shown in Mr. Lowry’s book, and when I tried it I thought it felt extremely weak. In fact, when I was taught to hold the bokken, it was the pinky you wrap around first, as it is the key factor for strength when gripping something as such or making a fist. When I asked my Aikido sensei, he said he had seen this before, but that we certainly practice it the second way in our Aikido class. I asked my Aikido sensei why we do it that way and … all I can remember is it had to do with shiho nage … !!! Bad student. I guess the detail was important enough to convince me at the time, but not substantial enough to make me remember exactly what it was? Crap, I’m sorry to the readers and myself.
Next, is a problem with his hips. When in a front stance after finishing shomen-uchi, (straight cut forward) he says to keep your hips directly and squarely foward. However, in our style of Aikido, we point our hips in a forty-five degree angle. By doing the second method in Aikido, you get a further reach, as well as ideal angle to slice. If two partners (or enemies) are standing face to face in Mr. Lowry’s stance and do shomen-uchi, the swords would come down straight on each other and it would not be possible to easily deflect your opponent’s sword or find the smallest angle to avoid your opponent’s attack and strike his center. With the Aikido stance, you have the ability to find that smallest angle to strike your opponent. Also, the Aikido stance seems to me to be more stable and more mobile. It looks to me like the differences in a traditional front bow stance with your hips forward, and a natural fighting stance with your hips turned forty-five degrees. This problem here seems absolutley ridiculous to me.
Next is the angle of the sword when raised above your head. This however, is a question I still have a problem with after talking with my Aikido sensei. In Mr. Lowry’s book, he says the proper position for the bokken when it is above your head is to be perfectly parallel with the ground (although in many of the pictures in his book it is draped behind his back). This is actually the way that I have believed to be correct for a while, but after talking with my Aikido sensei, he prefers to drape it down towards his back. Now, this focuses upon one of the lessons I learned tonight which is that there are quite a few seemingly contradictory theories in Aikido that I’m learning. My Aikido sensei that draping the sword towards your back relates to an open hand technique called … (I don’t know! I have not learned the name yet, but it is the technique where you are sitting, raise your hands to a shiho-nage like semblance, and then throw your opponent to one side). Anyway, he showed me that to do this properly, your hands follow the motion of the bokken in a manner that would drape it down your back, BUT, this contradicts what he has said about shiho-nage in that you need to always keep your hands in front of you, as if they go too high or far back, you lose strength. I have a problem with this explanation, and I don’t like my Aikido sensei’s way of draping the sword down his back. If anything, it makes more sense to me to follow the way of modern kendo, where the sword is tilted up at a forty-five degree angle. This way, it requires the least amount of time and muscles to effectively complete a cut. Anything slower would get you killed with a real sword is my take. While kendo is often criticized as focusing on quick hitting movements instead of a more realistic slice one would make with a real katana, I don’t see how this way of holding the bokken in kendo compromises it’s ability to slice. Anyone who practices the bokken is very welcome to make a comment on their particular way and it’s reasoning. I don’t feel comfortable with the answers I’ve found thus far.
These were the three logistical problems I was able to ask my Aikido sensei about: grip, hip direction, and bokken positioning. As for other problems I have with the book, he makes no reference to connecting the bokken to one’s center. In our Aikido class, there is a huge emphasis on the connection between our center of balance and positioning with the bokken, but in Mr. Lowry’s book there is no attention on this, and much of his seemingly bad posture is a result of him holding the ken to far back or to one side. This lack of connection makes for unbalanced and weak technique in my eyes. Instead of a constant balance and strength you attempt to achieve in Aikido or Chinese internal arts, you get on-and-off sporadic strength in bursts. Also, he does not mention once how the Japanese sword was used for cutting, which effects many techniques. The katana was not used to chop or hit, but to slice. Of course, this is a book about bokken and not katana, but this is one origin that needs attention I think, as it directly effects techniques of the bokken away from simple hitting or chopping.
For me tonight, the biggest moral of the story, is that Mr. Lowry’s style of practicing the bokken in Yagyu Shinkage is different from that which I practice in Aikido. One is not necessarily “right” or “better”, but used differently for different effects. Perhaps the biggest difference is Ueshiba Morihei’s development of the bokken to work perfectly with all open-handed techniques in Aikido.
This is all I will say on this issue for tonight, as the epitomies and arguments could last for many more pages and books. But perhaps there is an issue to ponder here concerning two different views of the martial arts: First, should we follow our teachings unswervingly as Mr. Lowry states, or second, should we actively and creatively work to innovate techniques towards new refinement.